To witness a whale

Words & photography by Rebecca Gibson

I leant back against the cabin and pushed my knees into the side of the boat to steady myself.

I pointed my camera towards the spot where the humpback whales had last surfaced and waited. It didn’t look glamorous by any means, but it meant I was far less likely to fall in. Aside from the occasional slap of swell against the boat I couldn’t hear a sound. It was a strange sensation – sharing a fjord with such massive animals and not knowing where they were. For all I knew they were right beneath us.

A flash of silver caught my eye and I looked down to see a herring spring out of the water within an arm’s reach of me. My heart squeezed as two more fish appeared. After that brief warning, four colossal mouths burst out of the water mere feet from where I was squatted, now frozen to the spot. This was a lunge feed – the humpback whales had trapped the fish against the surface and were now enveloping huge shoals in their rippling throats and filtering water out through their baleen plates. It all lasted a mere few seconds, and just before the whales sunk back under, I broke out of my paralysis to finally take a photo. My telephoto lens was far too cropped to capture the sheer vastness of the scene in front of me. Moments later the frothing water was the only sign they’d been there. I was shaking.

whale watching Norway covid 2020 mountains
whale watching Norway covid 2020 fin
whale watching Norway covid 2020 orca

Two weeks earlier our group of six arrived in Tromsø, northern Norway. After a three-hour drive even further north, we arrived at our accommodation, which sat on the edge of a fjord and was framed on all sides by mountains. We were lucky the view was so pretty because for the next ten days we would be housebound in quarantine. It was essential that we followed Norway’s COVID-19 requirements exactly. Steve Truluck, who organises the trips to Norway and skippers the hire boat, contacted the Norwegian Institute for Public Health to ensure we knew all the guidelines before travelling. We would be staying near a small fishing village called Skjervøy, which at the time of our trip in October 2020 had only had one documented case of COVID-19 all year. The local community agreed that tourists were welcome as long as they followed the rules.

We were all tested for coronavirus on arrival and received negative results, and the owner of our accommodation brought our groceries, so we didn’t have to leave the house at all. This may have driven some people crazy, but our quarantine was an adventure in and of itself. From the living room window, we saw velvet scoters, willow tits, harbour porpoises and white-tailed eagles that soared right over the house. However, we were here for whales, and by the eighth day of our quarantine there still hadn’t been any reported sightings.

In this area of Norway, the whales follow the herring, which are drawn into the fjords each winter from around late October. “The herring switch their preferred location every few years,” explains Steve. “The herring used to overwinter in Tysfjord. After a number of years, it moved north to Tromsø where it spent three or four years overwintering. Since November 2017 the herring have overwintered near Skjervøy. It is never definite that the herring will show up in a specific location.”

whale watching Norway covid 2020 seabirds
whale watching Norway covid 2020 fjords

If the herring arrived late or gathered far offshore where we couldn’t reach them, we had no chance of seeing any whales. All we could do was finish our quarantine and hope that our efforts hadn’t been wasted.

On the 4th November, our penultimate day inside, we were working in our home office as usual when Steve shouted “whale!” and the five of us dashed to the window. Far off in the distance was a tiny silver cloud against the dark base of the mountain. All whale blows are different, but these were the unmistakably bushy blows of humpback whales. That distant puff of air meant one thing: the herring had arrived.

Once our quarantine had ended, we wasted no time in getting out on the water. Within ten minutes of leaving the harbour on the first morning, a humpback whale surfaced near the boat. Its breath came in a burst like air rushing out of a tyre. Suddenly half a fluke appeared, lobtailing briefly. After so much uncertainty it was finally happening. The whale arched its back and lifted its huge tail fluke out of the water, sinking into a dive and out of sight.

In Arctic Norway, there’s another marine mammal that features high on everyone’s wish list. The largest species of dolphin in the world, the orca, is perhaps the most easily recognised cetacean. I was longing to see my first orcas but so far there had been no sign of them near Skjervøy. On our fourth day on the boat, we were still searching. There was an uneasy feeling in my stomach from the lurching waves and the cold squeezed my hands and feet.

whale watching Norway covid 2020 fluke
whale watching Norway covid 2020 humpback
whale watching Norway covid 2020 pod

I saw something tall and dark protruding from the waves a few hundred metres away. The boat rocked and I clung onto the handle, straining to get another glimpse of the orcas. As well as huge males with signpost dorsal fins, there were several tiny calves. Not daring to use my camera in such choppy water, I stood still and watched with wide eyes as the whale pod cruised past us and out of sight. For the next four days we saw humpbacks and orcas every day, many times simultaneously and with a constant cloud of gulls and white-tailed eagles overhead. At the end of the last day several humpbacks appeared in the reflection of a fiery sunset. Each time they surfaced and dived, their blows and the water from their flukes shone gold.

As someone who had never seen an orca or a humpback whale before my trip to Norway, I felt extremely fortunate to have had so many special encounters with them. As with all wildlife watching, the most important thing is to observe without causing disturbance, so we made sure to keep our distance and let the whales feed and roam as they naturally would.

None of us had been sure if the whales would arrive near Skjervøy again this winter. For whales, birds and humans alike, success depends on the herring. The question now is whether they will return for a fifth time or arrive somewhere else next winter. The possibility of getting back onto the fjords next year is tantalising, but there will never be another trip quite as memorable as this one.